Are you reading this article at 2AM, looking for a solution to help you naturally fall asleep? If so, you're not alone. According to a new survey from Consumer Reports, around 27% of adults claim to have issues falling or staying asleep. Plus, 68% (roughly 164 million Americans) have trouble with sleep at least once per week.
So, assuming counting sheep didn't cut it, how can you improve your sleep? If you aren’t following a perfectly balanced diet (and who does?), you may not be getting all of the vitamins and nutrients you need to get a restful night. This guide breaks down the science behind vitamins, minerals, and other supportive elements that can help you go from “Ahhh!” to Zzzz.
Vitamin C isn’t only for your immune system. Research suggests that people with lower vitamin C levels might also more frequently have trouble staying asleep. Even if you can fall asleep, it’s not restful to wake up several times through the night, or to have sporadic sleep cycles.
Kiwi is a fruit that is an excellent source of vitamin C, and one study found that eating two kiwi fruits an hour before bed was associated with better sleep time and efficiency. It’s not entirely clear why kiwi had this impact, although the high vitamin C content could certainly play a role.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin C is 90 mg for people born male and 75 mg for people born female. A single green kiwi contains approximately 93 mg of vitamin C. If you’re not into kiwi, there are many other robust sources of vitamin C. A half cup of red bell pepper contains 95 mg and ¾ cup of orange juice contains 93 mg.
Even though vitamin C is found in many foods, if you find it challenging to consume them, you can support healthy intake with a vitamin C supplement.
Even though vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin,” it’s also an important nutrient for the maintenance of healthy calcium absorption, bones, immune function, and even healthy sleep. Adequate vitamin D status is important for many aspects of health, and it may even impact how reliably your body can get restorative sleep. Initial results show a correlation between low levels of vitamin D and an increased risk for sleep challenges. More research is needed before conclusions can be made.
Vitamin D isn’t found in a lot of foods, but you can get it from fatty fish, beef liver, some mushrooms, and fortified foods like milk, cereal, and orange juice. More than 97% of Americans don’t consume enough vitamin D from food sources alone, though. Your body can also synthesize vitamin D after sun exposure, but that’s not instant or guaranteed. To produce vitamin D, you need to be at a latitude with adequate direct sunlight (for most of the planet, this is only approximately half of the year) and enough skin exposure. If you’re covered in clothing or sunscreen, or there is excessive cloud cover or smog, that could hinder the process, too. Your age, genetics, and how much melanin is in your skin also affects the amount of vitamin D that your body can make after sun exposure.
Because vitamin D from the sun isn’t a quick fix (or isn’t an option for some) and food sources are rarely enough, many healthcare providers recommend vitamin D supplements.
Melatonin has been making waves in the news recently for various reasons, but it’s been making waves in the brain for millennia. Literally, the brain makes melatonin, a natural sleep hormone, from the amino acid tryptophan which converts to the neurotransmitter serotonin and then finally melatonin. Melatonin is an important part of the circadian rhythm, your body’s internal clock that tells you when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to sleep.
Some people are less sensitive to melatonin’s activity in the brain, while others make less of it because of things like shift work, jet lag, or cortisol that is dysregulated. Cortisol and melatonin are key factors in the body clock. Cortisol should rise in the morning to get you up and at ‘em and ready for the day. In the evening, melatonin starts to increase and cortisol should decrease, readying your body for a calm, restful night of sleep.
Research shows that melatonin supplements work the same way that the naturally-made hormone does, and that it can be an effective way to support healthy sleep onset and quality rest.
Up to 75% of Americans may not be getting enough magnesium. This mineral has many important functions, but when it comes to sleep, you may want to take note. Initial animal research shows a connection between low magnesium levels and low melatonin levels. Magnesium supports healthy melatonin synthesis in the brain and also helps with muscular relaxation, both key factors that matter if you’re trying to wind down for a great night of sleep.
You can get magnesium from many foods, including pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, and a variety of nuts, beans, and whole grains. If you don’t consume magnesium-rich foods, a magnesium supplement can support a healthy intake.
While most think of calcium as a bone health nutrient, it’s also important for healthy sleep. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that low calcium was associated with disrupted REM sleep. Other studies have also noted the association between rapid-eye movement and calcium activity in the brain. There’s not enough research yet to make a firm connection as to why the two are linked, but calcium is a nutrient of importance for many things: bone health, fluid balance inside and outside of the cells, and normal muscular contractions.
Calcium is available in many foods, including many dairy products, collard greens, kale, sardines, sesame seeds, and mustard. When you need additional support, take a calcium supplement with food for the best digestion of this essential mineral.
Even though vitamin B12 is thought to be energizing, it may impact your sleep cycle too. A retrospective study considered surveys and blood nutrient values from 2,459 people and noticed that those who reported the shortest sleep durations also had the lowest B12 compared to those who had better sleep. The exact mechanism isn’t known, but since B12 is a nutrient that supports the nervous system, and the nervous system plays a dominant role in sleep quality and duration, a connection between the two makes sense.
Vitamin B12 is found in many foods, although they’re almost all animal-sourced. Meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy are the primary dietary sources of B12. Vegans and vegetarians may not get enough from dietary sources, but even people who consume animal products might still be lacking. Vitamin B12 can only be digested, absorbed, and utilized by the body after multiple steps. Older age, low stomach acid, and even genetics can impact how well the body can use B12. When looking for B12 supplements look for the active form called methylcobalamin.
Vitamin B12 is one of the most commonly consumed dietary supplements. Even though it’s usually taken during the day, it could still have an impact on your quality of sleep.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant vitamin that, like vitamin B12, isn’t directly associated with sleep onset and taking it won’t make you sleepy. But some preliminary research in animals has found that vitamin E’s antioxidant properties can be neuroprotective, off-setting oxidative damage by restoring antioxidant defenses that are synthesized in the body. These internal antioxidants include glutathione and enzymes like catalase, and superoxide dismutase, among others that manage oxidative stress. Since the research was not done in humans, it needs to be replicated in human clinical studies to know more. But it’s logical to consider that a brain that is buffered by more antioxidants could also be a brain that gets better quality sleep.
You can get vitamin E from foods like sunflower seeds, almonds, and hazelnuts. It is also typically found in most prenatal and multivitamin supplements.
Vitamin A is another fat-soluble vitamin with potential ties to sleep quality. Research is not conclusive, but does suggest that vitamin A may be linked with sleep regulation pathways, and that adequate intake of vitamin A is necessary for a healthy circadian rhythm response.
Vitamin A in its active form comes from foods like beef liver, herring, milk, and certain types of cheese (like ricotta). Beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A that has to be converted in the small intestine, but comes from foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, cantaloupe, and mango. Most multivitamins contain both forms of vitamin A, although some only utilize beta-carotene.
Aromatherapy with lavender essential oil can be just as soothing as any capsule you could take. Lavender is especially beneficial when you want to support healthy sleep since it can help to calm and relax the nervous system.
Try diffusing lavender in your room while you sleep or make a linen spray for your pillow. Even though lavender can support relaxation, on its own it won’t put you to sleep, so you can diffuse it all day long for a calming atmosphere.
Chamomile can be consumed as a tea, but it’s also available in herbal supplement form and it may be effective for sleep quality support, although it has no impact on perpetual problems falling asleep. Chronic sleep issues should always be discussed with your doctor.
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that is necessary for balanced sleep patterns. Valerian is an herb that supports restful sleep and relaxation by encouraging healthy GABA activity in the brain. Valerian has been used for decades to help with falling asleep and quality of rest.
Valerian can be supplemented on its own, but it’s also a common ingredient in healthy sleep support formulas, like Sleep Blend. It will make you sleepy, so you should only take it for occasional sleep support when you’re ready to nod off.
Ashwagandha is a popular herb used in Ayurvedic medicine. It has been shown to help with occasional stress and tension, neither of which are conducive to a good night of sleep. While Ashwagandha won’t knock you out, clinical trial research has found that it can support sleep quality and doesn’t cause drowsiness the next day. In fact, it might actually help you feel mentally alert the next morning. Although it’s not clear how exactly ashwagandha offers these supports, one preliminary study suggests that triethylene glycol, found in the leaves, may be one of the key compounds that supports sleep. Other theories surround the adaptogenic properties that help manage stress levels.
From the same plant that produces passion fruit comes passion flower, an herb that supports mental calm and resilience for occasional stress. Passion flower contains apigenin, a bioactive compound that encourages healthy sleep onset and duration for occasional sleep disturbances that may be related with stressors.
Passion flower is a popular herbal sleep supplement with a long history of use. It will make you sleepy, so don’t take it unless you’re ready for bed, and as they say, definitely don’t plan to operate heavy machinery.
There are many minerals and vitamins that play a role in occasional sleep challenges. Taking a reliable multivitamin can support your everyday nutrient intake, which is beneficial for overall health. When you generally feel better, that influences other things, like quality of life, good sleep, and maybe even fewer sad-scrolls on social media.
You can also take a formula designed to support healthy sleep. Sleep blend combines 3 common herbs listed above plus melatonin to help relax the mind for better sleep.
Sleep and diet are deeply connected. The National Sleep Foundation recommends foods that naturally support melatonin, like tart cherries. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study was done with 20 healthy individuals. Half the group was given a placebo beverage and the other was given tart cherry juice concentrate for a week. The group that consumed the cherry juice showed higher levels of melatonin, measured by urine testing, and also reported improved total sleep time and efficiency. The study was small, but shows that tart cherry juice (not to be confused with black cherry juice) may be a great option for healthy sleep support.
Certain nuts, like walnuts or almonds, may support melatonin production in the brain. Other bedtime snacks to consider include fruits or whole grains since carbs, when paired with fats, have been shown to stimulate the transport of amino acids in the brain.
The amount of sleep you need and the particular pattern you should follow depend on a couple of factors, the most impactful being your age. Teenagers typically need between 8–10 hours of sleep to feel well-rested, while adults need somewhere between 7–9 hours.
REM sleep takes place about 90 minutes after you’ve fallen asleep and it’s an essential state for dreaming. A quality night’s sleep will bring you through about four cycles of REM sleep. When REM occurs, your eyes, even though closed, move from side to side. As you get older, you spend less time in REM sleep, which can be problematic because REM is significant for healthy cognition and memory.
Some of the vitamins and supplements that support healthy sleep can be very effective, but like anything, individual results can vary. Melatonin is one of the more well-studied natural sleep supplements, but it does not work for everyone. There are no large clinical trials that pit vitamins, sleep supplements, and OTC sleep aids against each other, so there is no definitive answer.
The effective option for you is one that is safe for you to take and that addresses your specific needs. Only a healthcare provider can advise you on the best choice, and only you can decide what ultimately is most effective for you.
What is known is that it’s not advised to take both natural sleep aids and OTC sleeping pills. Even over-the-counter options can have interactions or strong effects, so whichever option you choose, be sure to use caution and remember that many sleep aids can leave you feeling drowsy the next day.
If you’re ready to next-level your sleep hygiene, consider the following tips.
Proper hydration: How well you are hydrated can affect your body’s ability to deeply rest. While mild dehydration isn’t likely to have much of an impact, if your body is fluid-deprived, it can disrupt many things. Drinking a lot of fluids before bed will also mess up your sleep quality. It’s best to consistently drink fluids throughout the day so that you’re hydrated, but not loaded with fluids before you’re trying to sleep for 7–9 hours.
Limit caffeine: If you drink caffeine, you’re well aware that it can make you feel more alert, awake, and happy to be alive. While your individual rate for metabolizing caffeine can be very different from someone else’s, overall, caffeine’s role as a stimulant means it shouldn’t be consumed past early afternoon since it can block the brain chemicals that try to tell you you’re sleepy. If you’re heading into a morning meeting and don’t want to yawn in front of your boss, that’s great. But if it’s 11PM and your body really should be winding down for sleep, you don’t want caffeine to put a gag order on those sleep-signaling messengers.
Consistent sleep schedule: Humans are creatures of habit. Setting a bedtime that allows you to get enough sleep hours (and sticking to it) can be a great way to support better sleep. Pair it with a wind-down routine that promotes calm and relaxation (read a book, listen to soothing music, meditate, and so on) for a soothing way to end your day. Bedtime should be something you look forward to, not dread, so incorporating elements that feel like a retreat will make it feel more like self-care and less like a chore.
Creating a conducive sleep environment: Keep your bedroom cool (around 65°F) and free from bright lights and noise distractions. Yes, this is next to impossible if you have small kids, cats, or rock band neighbors — but do the best you can. When your body gets too hot while you sleep, it can disrupt the deeper, restorative phases of the sleep cycle.
Block the blue lights: No, not that cute little dog show. You have probably heard about “blue light” and how it messes with your sleep. Unfortunately, there’s research that shows it’s not just an internet myth. It’s best to avoid using your smartphone, tablet, laptop, and even TV as much as possible for the hour before you go to sleep since this light exposure might mess with your melatonin production and make it harder to fall asleep. If that isn’t an option, try wearing amber-colored glasses or utilize the night-shift color correction feature on your smart device, since these slight changes have been shown to make a difference in sleep quality.
Sleep is essential for health. Your body restores and repairs while you’re in REM and beyond, so not getting enough can have extensive impacts on how you feel. There are many ways to support healthy sleep. Some vitamins, minerals, and other supplements can be helpful, as well as lifestyle supports and healthy practices.
If your sleep challenges are chronic, or nothing seems to help you get some good quality shut-eye, see your doctor. Long-term or consistent sleep disruptions may just be related to hormone changes or stress, but it can also be a sign of a more serious underlying health issue. Be sure to talk to your doctor about persistent sleep issues.